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The Supple Operator

  • 5 min read


I heard Kelly Starrett mention once that the reason why he refers to it as "The Supple Leopard" is that if you think about it, a leopard is always ON."A leopard doesn't have to do its leopard warm up, or drink its leopard pre-workout shakes…a leopard is simply always ready to move."

If you interpret that ‘being on and ready’ means slamming 4 monsters a day to stay alert, you are doing the exact opposite of what is being promoted. Balance is being READY to up-regulate when needed but also being able to down-regulate just as quickly.

Our goal with any mobility program is to become the human counterpart of leopards, poised and masters of both our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The fight-or-flight (sympathetic) response is a necessary response, but a more important response is the rest-and-recover (parasympathetic) response to allow tissues to recover and regenerate.

The Importance of Your Mobility Program

Your body has a shelf life, and bad movement, especially when external loads are placed on the system, will drastically decrease that shelf life.

It is no secret that our jobs are dangerous and extremely taxing on our bodies. In many gyms and even the military, our "mobility" comes in the form of some early morning stretches and possibly a cool-down if people aren't too eager for coffee and a shower. Our culture is that of  "go-hard, fast and heavy", and time is always limited. Mobility training remains on the back burner until life and doctor's orders force it to the forefront by an injury.

Our time certainly is limited and requires an exceptional balance between multiple competing demands…if we only have 20 minutes, chances are you are more likely to grab a barbell than a band, and sometimes that is appropriate. If you find yourself barefoot, look down at your arches; are they collapsed? If so, activate them. Feel the glutes fire: this builds motor control; if you feel yourself sitting for 15 hours a day, break it up by standing, actively and with good posture; and most importantly, always remain mindful of your breath.

Mobility is something you have the opportunity to train every day because you move every day.

Soflete’s Mobility program attempts to address common movement faults and promote stability at end-range of motion. When a muscle is exposed to a new range of motion, there is an activation or neuromuscular re-education pattern that must occur in that new range to reduce the risk of injury.

As a force, we've come a long way through the implementation of both the THOR and EXOS programs; however, we still have a long way to go. First off, these services are only available to elite units and neglect many of those who still find themselves shaving years of good movement off their lives due to time spent under the shear and compression forces of body armor and heavy rucksacks. Oftentimes these individuals are in units with one Physical Therapist for several hundred if not a thousand soldiers and subject to a culture of people more likely to see the Doc only when something breaks. Kelly Starrett and mobility WOD explain this chain reaction in their I3 Model: "Incomplete Mechanics" lead to "Incidents" which lead to "Injuries".

The timing between each stage is subjective; however, for many of us, the slow degradation of our mobility spans over years: a lack of mobility or stability causes mobility compensations which results in incomplete body mechanics leading to "incidents"...and with enough incidents, injury follows.

Think about it like this: wearing heavy rucksacks and body armor creates a significant amount of stiffness and compression in the thoracic spine and shoulders. If the lats and pecs are tight, they will compress the shoulder and pull the lower back into hyperextension. Over time this causes the shoulder to "roll forward" and nagging low back tightness resulting from the external load placed on a frame of bad posture. As a result of bad posture, this new default shoulder position causes Joe to tear his labrum trying to knock out his strict pull-ups at Selection.

BUT let's be real, we aren't going to stop wearing body armor or stop wearing heavy rucks. A simple post ruck or post movement protocol can certainly help to alleviate stiffness and compensatory movement patterns and AT LEAST slow down the rate of degradation which leads to injury.

SOFLETE’S Mobility Recovery Program

Rather than just drop your kit or your ruck near your bunk and pass out after a long movement, I would recommend spending a couple of minutes on a simple protocol that will help restore proper body mechanics:

Foam Roll breathing/active pec release.The first 2 minutes following any time in kit should be rolling the upper back perpendicular to the spine using a peanut, RAD Roller or dense foam roller if none of the others are available. This is followed by lying on the 3 foot foam roller head to tail bone and allowing the diaphragm to depress during respiration, taking stress off the accessory muscles of the shoulder/neck. With hands clasped on the abdomen and shoulder blades lightly pinched into the foam roller, focus on breathing in through the nose for a count of 3-4 and exhalation out the mouth with a 6-8 sec release.  

Side lying T spine rotations would follow with the top leg at a 90 degree bend at the hip and maintaining contact on the foam roller-10 each side

Childs Pose next. Do this for 10 deep breaths.

Lax Ball release to Lats, Upper trap, anterior shoulder, distal quads and calf would follow. Do these as needed

Static stretching with 1-2 minute holds of the following: Hip flexor, pecs, Achilles/calf, lateral hip, lats

Finally,stretching with voodoo bands are good, but for recovery any type of low load cardio such as a bike will have the same perfusion effect.

A solid mobility practice is the last bastion of truly "functional fitness." As our fitness has evolved, the loads we use in training have become heavier than anything I’d ever actually pick up in real life and put over my head; however, for those who want to continue taking our kids out of the bathtub without having low backs on fire, mobility programming is certainly for you. It is my personal belief that there is a massive amount of untapped strength in this community and the culprit is our inability to move into the positions that allow us to leverage our muscles in their entirety.

As Operators, we can only hope to be like supple leopards, always on and always ready. In my opinion, the true goal of any mobility program is to bring longevity into our given endeavors and practices. We only have one body, and when it's burnt out or broken, we can't get another. Mobility is what prepares you for the unknown and unknowable and gives us the abilities needed to thrive in it.  

This article is co-authored by Soflete Coach Chris vanBrenk (with no fancy letters after his name) and Theo Ballard PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, MTC. Theo Ballard is an awesome human being and a Physical Therapist at THOR on Fort Bragg, NC.


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